This is one of several accounts Amy Fettig, Senior Staff Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, shared of her clients dealing with Special Housing Unit (SHU) Syndrome. Last Saturday, she spoke on “The Emerging Consensus to Stop Solitary Confinement” at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church at a modest yet passionate conference held by the WNY chapter of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC).
Fettig, who is also a lawyer and directs the Stop Solitary campaign, litigates federal class action prison conditions cases through the ACLU.
SHU Syndrome, Fettig explained, is one of the many negative mental health outcomes of solitary confinement in prisons – a place that goes by many names, such as special housing, special management, isolation, segregation, and “the box.” This practice is used widely in U.S. prisons as a disciplinary measure and control mechanism for inmates. It involves confining individuals for 22 to 24 hours a day in a cell smaller than six by nine feet, providing limited contact with other human beings for days, weeks, months, and even decades. Time outdoors is limited to a caged area the size of a dog kennel.
Displaying a photographed row of steel-clad doors, Fettig described the continuous screams that echo through the pod day and night – the sounds of people losing their minds, an anguished “expression of their soul,” Fettig puts it. No physical contact is allowed during family visits, and phone calls are rare. Not only is medical and mental health care severely lacking, but prisoners are also subject to frequent abuse.
Brother Baba Eng of Prisoners Are People, Too detailed his survival through solitary in a brief talk as well. He gave a vivid, distressing description: Guards beat you naked and defecate in your food. They taunt the prisoners with barking.
Solitary confinement is, by definition of the United Nations and Geneva Conventions, a form of torture. The Mandela Rules state that isolation beyond fifteen days is cruel and inhumane. In fact, the global norm is fifteen days – but U.S. prisons far exceed that in practice.
The U.S. exceeds many global norms when it comes to imprisonment. While we make up only 5% of the world’s population, we house 25% of the world’s prisoners, or 2.3 million people. On any given day in our country, it is estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 people are held in solitary confinement. Those figures are considered an underrepresentation, as they do not include the confinement of children, people in county jails, or detainees in immigration facilities.
This is not an accurately recorded practice either, Fettig explains. A large part of the problem is that there is little to no oversight or accountability in our prisons. The public does not have access to seeing SHU pods or monitoring their conditions, and even the ACLU needs a court order to view them.
“I’ve sued states that say, ‘We don’t know who’s in solitary or how long they’ve been there,’” Fettig tells.
We all know that our need for human contact is innate. It is necessary for normal socialization, stability, and – frankly – our sanity. Over thirty years of research on the effects of solitary confinement have highlighted that it’s not only detrimental to the individual but to the prison environment and community at large as well. Self-mutilation and suicide are common. A recent study of 8,000 records from Rikers Island revealed prisoners in solitary are 700 times more likely to take their own lives than people in the general prison population.
Fettig relayed a story of a client of hers who kept refusing to return his food tray to the corrections officers. The officers would drag him out of his isolation cell and beat him as punishment. Fettig asked her client why he wouldn’t just return the tray, and the man replied that it was the “only time he gets contact.” The effects of being alone are so severe he would rather be beaten than have no contact at all.
Confinement leads to confusion, memory problems, myopia, deep anxiety, PTSD, and physical and neurological damage. Brain function declines within the first seven days of isolation.
Despite this evidence, we expect to release prisoners after solitary confinement and witness successful reintegration with society.
Solitary confinement emerged as a way to control excessive prison populations. As our number of prisoners surged beginning in the 1980s and overcrowding and poor conditions led to violent outbreaks within facilities, states built Supermax prisons specifically designed for mass solitary confinement.
The theory behind solitary, however, was not vetted. Fettig warns that solitary confinement was a “gut” instinct policy, rather than one based on empirical evidence. In fact, empirical evidence shows solitary confinement makes prisons more violent and less safe for prisoners and C.O.’s. There is even a 20% higher recidivism rate for people released into society directly from solitary as opposed to being released after re-acclimating to the general prison population.
Myth Busting: Who Is in Solitary?
Some proponents of solitary might argue that the alarming violence and higher recidivism amongst those in solitary is self-fulfilling; it is due to the fact that “the worst of the worst” get placed there. But is this true?
Fettig’s answer is, “It’s not the people in solitary confinement; it’s the practice.”
The idea that only the most dangerous, unruly prisoners are isolated is a myth. While prisoners can be sent into confinement for fighting or breaking serious rules, only a minor infraction can in fact be reason enough to send someone there for long stretches of time. Fettig cited actions that have put her clients away such as talking back, having “too many legal documents” in their cell, and even something as benign as possessing “too many stamps”. Even more alarming, many C.O.’s are not trained to deal with mental illness, so often it is dealt with in this manner.
People with developmental disabilities, aging prisoners (over 70 years old), pregnant women, and children under the age of 18 are not excluded from this population, either. In other cases, members of the LGBTQ community who are being sexually abused by other prisoners are put in solitary as a safety precaution.
In 2014, New York State passed a bill to exclude people with mental illness from solitary confinement, instead recommending obvious alternatives such as health care and proper mental health treatment. Still, it is estimated that 20% of people in solitary suffer from mental illness. The legislation also banned isolating minors, pregnant women, and people with developmental disabilities. However, legislation is not the only step required to enforce these much-needed reforms.
Progress – but not fast enough
In December 2015, the NYCLU reached a historic settlement in the class action suit Peoples v. Fischer. The agreement has prompted New York State to limit the length of solitary confinement, reduce the number of people placed there, and increase rehabilitative efforts.
Still, our state has the highest percentage of people in solitary confinement. More oversight and accountability from the public is a must if this practice is to truly be corrected, Fettig recommends.
Furthermore, in an unprecedented motion this past January, President Obama announced a ban on confining juveniles and inmates serving time for low-level violations in federal prisons. While attention from our president indicates positive movement, unfortunately this executive order does not hold power over state and local prisons and jails.
Our legislators are in need of a harder push. The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Bill is a long way from getting passed through the New York State Senate and has yet to be added to the floor calendar. Organizations such as CAIC urge the public to sign a petition in support of this bill, call or write to their representatives, and voice their support.
At the very least, people are growing more aware. In New York, a ban on the infamous “loaf” stirred discussion on how we feed inmates. Recently, The Guardian released a 3-D virtual experience of solitary confinement on their website. But is discussion leading to action?
It appears easy for people to dismiss our prison conditions with a wave of the hand and an assumption that if they deserve to be in prison, they deserve to be treated poorly. But pragmatism and evidence have eroded this logic to a dull nub; we cannot continue to address crime with inhumane acts. By turning a blind eye to this revolting form of torture, this clear violation of human rights, do we not lose a part of our own humanity as well?
“Historic Settlement Overhauls Solitary Confinement in New York.” (16 December 2015). New York Civil Liberties Union. http://www.nyclu.org/news/historic-settlement-overhauls-solitary-confinement-new-york
Panetta, Francesca. (27 April 2016). “6x9: a virtual reality experience of solitary confinement.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/27/6x9-vr-virtual-reality-experience-solitary-confinement-faqs-explainer
“Solitary Confinement Facts.” American Friends Services Committee. http://www.afsc.org/resource/solitary-confinement-facts
Quandt, Katie Rose. (26 February 2014). “Is This the Beginning of the End for Solitary Confinement?” Mother Jones. http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2014/02/children-pregnant-women-developmentally-disabled-solitary-confinement-reform-new-york
Shear, Michael D. (25 January 2016). “Obama Bans Solitary Confinement of Juveniles in Federal Prisons.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/26/us/politics/obama-bans-solitary-confinement-of-juveniles-in-federal-prisons.html?_r=0
Senate Bill S2659. The New York State Senate. https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2015/S2659
Casella, Jean and Aviva Stahl. “Opening the Door: What Will It Take to End Long-Term Solitary Confinement in America’s Prisons? Colorado Could Be the First to Find Out.” Solitary Watch. http://solitarywatch.com/2016/04/29/opening-the-door/
“Think Outside the Box.” New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. http://nycaic.org/legislation/